Film critic and Presbyterian pastor Edward McNulty makes the connections for a film you can see at home over the holidays
by the Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Virtually every adult American knows that Mahalia Jackson sang at the 1963 March on Washington and that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
But who can name the genius of organizing the massive event, without whom there would not have been a march? A man who had worked with union leader A. Philip Randolph back in 1941 to organize a similar march of 100,000 to go to Washington and demand that African Americans be employed in the defense industries — and who called it off when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order commanding that “Negroes” be hired in defense plants. That man was Bayard Rustin, often called “the forgotten hero” of the civil rights movement.
Film director George C. Wolf hopes to bring Rustin out of the shadows with his film “Rustin,” which has just started streaming on Netflix. The film is not a full biography of the long-time activist, but instead focuses upon the few months leading up to that remarkable date of August 28, 1963, when the number of people showing up in Washington far exceeded the hopes of the planners —somewhere around 250,000.
We are flagging “Rustin” here because the film has a small connection with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that shows up almost at the conclusion of the film. It lasts but five or six seconds, but there is a definite Presbyterian connection that occurs at a little over one hour and 32 minutes into the film.
Thousands of people arrived in Washington, D.C., early on the morning of Aug 28, 1963, to join the March. Most of them were Black. But some of them were white, perhaps the most prominent in the very front row of the marchers. He wore a black suit with a white clergy collar and what looks like a Panama hat atop his head. And though this is all we see of him in the film, he played a much bigger role in the actual planning of that March — and, before King’s stirring oration, even gave a brief speech following A. Philip Randolph’s opening remarks.
When you look at the film’s cast list — way down on it because the actor was given no lines in the film — you can see that this white marcher is the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, played by Christopher Anglim. Blake had been serving as General Assembly Stated Clerk since 1951, first of the Presbyterian Church USA and then of the merged United Presbyterian Church. He also was president of the National Council of Churches from 1954 to 1957 and then became chair of the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race. This latter must have impelled him to become more active in racial justice, which resulted in many conservative Presbyterians condemning his actions — especially when he joined picketers at a segregated amusement park in Maryland on July 4, 1963, and was arrested. That story was reported throughout the country, raising a storm of protests among his detractors. One wrote that he was delighted Blake was in jail, calling him “a disgrace to the Presbyterian Church” and “a scallywag.”
In “Rustin,” we learn that some of the leaders of the civil rights organizations did not want Rustin as head organizer because he was gay — the man was never closeted and was not ashamed of the fact. To its credit, the film explores this side of Rustin’s life, though mostly focusing on the complex planning of Rustin and a host of young and older leaders and volunteers leading up to the massive March on Washington.
At one point, when Rustin was rejected as leader and A. Philip Randolph was elected to replace him, the latter’s first act was to appoint Rustin as his deputy, with full power to oversee all the details of organizing the event. About two months before the March, the committee invited four whites who supported their cause to join them — Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers; Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; and Eugene Carson Blake.
Blake was so prominent that he was among the few leaders to speak before King concluded the event. Blake’s speech was short. He knew he was not the headliner. And although the huge crowd was something to boast about, the speech was contrite, not triumphant. In the first half he wished that he could speak for all Christians, and if all church and synagogue members would join them in their struggle, then the battle would be won. The last of his remarks is worth recording here, because they are as timely today as they were 60 years ago:
“But as of August 28, 1963, we have achieved neither a nonsegregated church nor a nonsegregated society. And it is partially because the churches of America have failed to put their own houses in order that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 175 years after the adoption of the Constitution, 173 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the United States of American still faces a racial crisis. We do not, therefore, come to this Lincoln Memorial in any arrogant spirit of moral or spiritual superiority to ‘set the Nation straight’ or to judge or to denounce the American people in whole or in part. Rather we come — late, late we come — in the reconciling and repentant spirit in which Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, once replied to a delegation of morally arrogant churchmen. He said, ‘Never say God is on our side, rather pray that we may be found on God’s side.’ We come in the fear of God that moved Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia., whose memorial stands across the lagoon, once to say: ‘Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.’”
This prophet in a clerical collar was worthy of marching and standing beside the gay prophet-organizer Bayard Rustin and the great Dreamer. I wish the filmmakers had given Blake more than that ever-so-brief clip near the end of the film. I wonder during their planning meetings how Blake reacted to Rustin’s being gay — it was a time when gays were often arrested and beaten and sent to jail for their “crime.”
I suspect Blake reacted to him much as the elderly Randolph and King did — regarding him, flawed, maybe, but a comrade-in-arms willing to lay down his life for equality and justice, one whose organizing genius was a great gift to the civil rights movement.
I am sure Blake would have approved the last thing we see Rustin do in the film. I won’t give it away here, except to say it is the best example in film of what Jesus meant by servant leadership since the concluding scene of “Bruce Almighty.” Watch “Rustin” to see what this is. And let us use this film as an occasion to remember a great Presbyterian who left this world a better place through his prophetic leadership.
You can watch a clip of Blake being arrested and hear his commentary on the Presbyterian Historical Society’s website by clicking here.
McNulty’s long review of “Rustin” is available at visualparables.org. It will be included in the December 2023 journal Visual Parables with a discussion guide of at least 20 questions.
The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, was for many years the film critic for Presbyterians Today. He has been posting weekly film reviews at his Visual Parables site for 32 years. His three Westminster John Knox film books are “Faith & Film,” “Praying the Movies” and “Praying the Movies II.” His newest book is “Jesus Christ, Movie Star.”
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